Imagine a turning point in your life. Now imagine that you are struggling to find your identity in a surrounding society of chaos, and that this turning point will define your ensuing transition into adulthood. You have officially become the main character of the modern bildungsroman. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines the bildungsroman as “a kind of novel that follows the development of the hero or heroine from childhood into adulthood, through a troubled quest for identity” (Baldick). The word “bildungsroman” can be roughly translated into English as “formation-novel” (Baldick). This is because the story follows a character through his or her “formation” of selfhood.
Several elements of the bildungsroman are apparent in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party.” In fact, it can be described as a “truncated bildungsroman” (Rich). “The Garden Party” follows a young girl through an experience, an epiphany or life turning point, which changes how she views the world forever. It is “a story of the growth and maturity of a young idealistic character” (Rich). The main character, Laura, is on an evolutionary journey out of her fantasy life and into reality (Rich).
The main character is provoked by curiosity or knowledge about her own lack of development and begins to search for identity outside of herself. Jennifer Rich points out that “‘The Garden Party’ epitomizes the dream world of the Sheridan women, a world where underlying principle is the editing and rearranging of reality for the comfort and pleasure of its inhabitants. Its war is with the real world, whose central and final truth is death.” This need for the main character to be able to accept the true darkness of life is a motif typical of the bildungsroman. It is a truth that the young hero or heroine must learn to accept in order to cross over to maturity. This is apparent in “The Garden Party,” as Laura is exposed to death and darkness outside the confines of her wealthy dream world’s walls. With this exposition comes revelation and conviction.
Another striking theme of the bildungsroman that is evident in “The Garden Party” is the presence of clear class distinctions (Rich). These class distinctions are largely a part of what causes Laura to question her own identity and whether or not she is actually so different from those less fortunate than she. Her discovery that death is universal, for the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, leads her to the conclusion that her fantasy life is not accurate; her bubble will not protect her from the darkness of life.
The specificity of the class distinctions in the short story are likely due to the context in which it was written (Rich). “The Garden Party” was written in 1922. Mansfield is considered to be an extremely modernistic writer (Shelton). Historically, this was a time of Marxist movements throughout Europe. Marxism during the early 1920s was a class-obsessive movement, which explains the short story’s class-focused plot (Rich). Mansfield not only explores class structure but also recognizes the impact of “class interdependence” (Rich). As indicated in “The Garden Party,” the different classes rely on each other to facilitate each other’s world. The upper class relies on the lower class for commonplace jobs and manual labor; this is necessary to keep the fantasy bubble of wealth from popping. The upper class is unable to see those of the lower class as anything other than objects to be used; allowing them any form of humanity would create an uncomfortable dilemma for those on top of the class system. Laura pushes the boundaries with her family in exploring the reasoning behind class distinctions, and she is in turn accused of being absurd.
Recognized as the “premier short story writer of the modern
period,” Mansfield instituted several original modernistic concepts
(“Katherine Mansfield”). Mansfield pioneered the modernist tendency to insert the “internal musings” of her characters into her stories (“Katherine Mansfield”). She is also in part responsible for modernism's preoccupation with the life-altering epiphanies of its characters. Mansfield aimed to break
conventions by writing stories that were “plotless,” in which characters
undergo a certain self-awareness with realizations that remain largely
explicated (“Katherine Mansfield”). This is certainly the case in "The Garden Party." Upon leaving the gaiety her family is hosting at their house on the hill, Laura descends, Persephone-like, to pay respects to the family of a dead workman in the slum below. Transfixed by her experience, her final statement in the story is "Isn't life [. . .] isn't life–" Thus with an open dash Mansfield ends Laura's self-expression, informing us that "what life was she couldn't explain." Laura has come of age in a flash, but what insight that experience produced is far from evident.
Several of Mansfield’s works can be classified as having characteristics of the bildungsroman. Specifically, the novel Maata
is known for its bildungsroman-like motifs (Shelton). In many of these
works, especially in “The Garden Party,” Mansfield uses class
distinctions as a tool to develop characters and convey themes. She
“challenges the notion that childhood is a time of innocence”
(“Katherine Mansfield”). Mansfield suggests that “class indoctrination” is an
unavoidable result of the socialization that occurs during childhood and
that it is far from innocent. In fact, in many of Mansfield’s works,
childhood is depicted as a dark and promiscuous time, which is also a
defining characteristic of the bildungsroman (“Katherine Mansfield”).
Baldick, Chris. "Bildungsroman." The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. N. pag. Print.
"Katherine Mansfield." Feminist Writers. Ed. Pamela Kester-Shelton. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. Literature Resource Center. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Rich, Jennifer. "An overview of 'The Garden Party.'" Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2013. Literature Resource Center. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.